Charlotte Alston / History

Tolstoy and Vegetarianism

In the last thirty years of his life, Leo Tolstoy developed a moral philosophy that embraced, amongst other things, vegetarianism. But how did Tolstoy’s stance compare to the wider vegetarian movement of the late-nineteenth century?

Tolstoy and VegetarianismIn the late nineteenth century, the vegetarian movement became increasingly organised. The first vegetarian society was founded in Manchester in 1849; an American equivalent was established in 1850, and a German society in 1867. It also became increasingly visible, through its periodical literature, handbooks and cookbooks, and through the presence of vegetarian restaurants in European cities. Harold Williams, a young New Zealander visiting Europe for the first time in the 1890s, was able to lunch in vegetarian restaurants in London and Berlin, but also in Derby.

The arguments used for vegetarianism were multifarious, and many of them had their origins in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some were pseudo-scientific and health-related; others focused on animal rights and humanitarian concerns. While vegetable food was clean and cleansing, meat, it was argued, was full of poisons and waste material. Carcasses were after all corpses, and contained ‘all the sweat, nitrogenous waste and putrid matter that necessarily remains with the flesh after death’. Meat was an unnatural food for man – if it were natural, wouldn’t people be willing to eat it raw, as with vegetables? Even Edward VII’s appendicitis, which delayed his coronation from June to August 1902, was put down to his meat rather than vegetarian diet.  While opponents of vegetarianism focused on the lack of nutrition in the vegetarian diet, vegetarian propaganda highlighted both variety in vegetarian food, and the physical strength or sporting abilities of vegetarians. Vegetarians might not be numerous, but they were ‘already gathering in far more than their share of athletic honours, in walking competitions, rackets and cycling’. It was also noted that the strongest (horse, ox, camel), fastest (antelope, hare), longest-lived (elephant) and most intelligent (elephant, ape) animals were herbivores.

The cruelty of killing animals for food and the means by which this was done were central arguments, but so too was the brutalization of those who worked in the meat industry, as butchers, slaughtermen, and even shepherds and drovers. Some vegetarians opposed the use of animals as labour power – because of poor treatment, cruelty, overwork and neglect – and for entertainment – shooting, hunting, dog-fighting or rat-worrying. Some, though by no means all, argued that for the sake of consistency, leather shoes ought to be eschewed. Some argued that the solution was to go barefoot, in order not to shut the foot up in a ‘stiff, foul, unventilated prison’. Finding a workable alternative to leather was not an easy task. The judges of a competition held in 1895 to find the most satisfactory pair of vegetarian shoes or boots concluded that none of the entrants were entirely satisfactory. One contributor to The Vegetarian sent up these concerns (and the construction of late nineteenth century shoes) in the following poem:

“My boy”, – dad looked up from his last –
“What makes you seem so sad,
When everybody round you is
So smiling and so glad?
You look as though your inner soul
Was fainting at its roots
“Father, you’ve hit the nail”, I said,
“It’s Vegetarian boots!”

“I never, never eat a chop,
Or pick a mutton bone
I will not cause a pig to squeak,
Or the great ox to groan.
My cult, which lives on fruit and bread,
Now rapidly recruits;
But what’s the use, unless we walk
In Vegetarian boots?”

“Leather is made from hide, we’re told
And hide but covers meat;
So if we still wear leather shoes
What matters what we eat?
The rubber soles are apt to draw,
And cause untimely shoots;
O, dad, wherever can I get
Some Vegetarian boots?”

“Ahem, my lad”, my father said,
“Although the food I take
Is not like yours, and for my views
I’ll boldly face the steak;
Take comfort in your simple soul,
Content with nuts and fruits;
For I a secret will impart
Re “Vegetarian boots”.

“Time was when all went leather shod
But now, with ‘patent’ shoes,
We eat the leather – call it ‘beef’ –
Or anything we choose.
Brown paper now is what I use
That isn’t made from brutes,
So everyone who buys my goods
Wears Vegetarian boots”.

Vegetarians also adopted a generous reformist outlook, making connections with many other movements. Although closest conceptually and socially to the temperance, animal rights and anti-vivisection movements, vegetarianism seemed to be correlated to ‘all sorts of strange isms’: vegetarians were likely ‘to hold new and strange views on political economy, to be a member of the society for Psychical Research, to dress in all wool clothing, to abjure the razor, and to wear soft and unsightly hats’. Vegetarians were involved in the foundation of the Humanitarian League in Britain, which brought reformers together under ‘a general principle of humaneness’, and in the League for Total Abstention in the Netherlands. The Bulgarian Vegetarian Union had ambitions that went far beyond the diet of its members: they aimed to ‘raise the moral, intellectual and physical level of the individual’.

One prominent figurehead for the nineteenth century vegetarian movement was Leo Tolstoy. His essay The First Step was promoted by vegetarian societies internationally, and his essays and short stories (those relating to diet but also to other topics) appeared in vegetarian periodicals. Tolstoy’s vegetarianism was just one part of the Christian anarchist philosophy he developed in his later life. This philosophy also embraced temperance, chastity, the rejection of private property and the use of money, and a complete refusal to participate in violence or coercion of any kind. The breadth of Tolstoyan interests meant that Tolstoy’s followers interacted with a wider range of reformist movements in the 1890s, and the vegetarian movement was just one of these. Tolstoyans shared platforms and exchanged speakers with the vegetarian movement. Vegetarian restaurants provided them with a physical meeting space, whether at the Vegetarian Cooperative Association on Sixth of September Street in Sofia, at the Pomona vegetarian hotel and restaurant in The Hague or the Central Vegetarian Restaurant in Farringdon Street, London. One visitor to the Tolstoyan colony at Purleigh in Essex, commented that there was no self-denial in the vegetarian diet. In Moscow for the celebrations of the centenary of Tolstoy’s birth in 1928, Charles Daniel enjoyed ‘omelette, cauliflower, apple sandwich and ice cream’ at the Moscow Vegetarian Society’s restaurant. And Edith Crosby described a meal that she shared with several Tolstoyans (including Chertkov) as ‘a most gorgeous vegetarian menu – Omolet, macaroni, vegetable marrow, tomatoes, potatoes & beans – followed by jelly, trifle, & stewed pears, – then melon & grapes – & salad & cheese! And the social reformers showed themselves to be rivals to ‘Them Religious that ‘eats awful’!’

While Tolstoy and his followers borrowed many of their arguments from the wider vegetarian movement, those relating to violence against animals and on the part of men were particularly important for them. Tolstoyans made the link between vegetarianism and a wider humanitarianism explicit. Vladimir Chertkov, Tolstoy’s closest associate who lived in England for a decade from the 1890s onwards, told an audience at the vegetarian society that they ought not to be working simply for ‘the dissemination of vegetarianism amongst mankind’ but rather for ‘the deepening of that humane aspiration which lies at the basis of vegetarianism and its expansion over all the field over covered by our consciousness and our conduct’. How was it possible, he asked, to regard the killing of animals for food as evil, but not to condemn the killing of men through war and capital punishment? Not all members of the vegetarian movement agreed; and, on the other side of the coin, the London Peace Society stated explicitly that its members saw no connection between the questions of war and diet. Tolstoyans saw vegetarianism as just one part of a complete world view. They also set themselves apart from animal rights activists through their refusal to endorse legislative solutions or the introduction of penalties for mistreatment. Cruelty and mistreatment of animals could only be ended, in their view, by the cultivation of brotherly, humanitarian feeling amongst all involved, and not by the ‘eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth’ of the law. Non-violence, non-resistance and brotherhood were the principles that lay at the basis of Tolstoyan vegetarianism, and while these principles meant that Tolstoyans cooperated closely with vegetarians, they also kept them in many ways apart. ■

Image courtesy of ptwo.
Tolstoy and his DisciplesCharlotte Alston’s new book is Tolstoy and his Disciples: The History of a Radical International Movement. Senior Lecturer in History at Northumbria University, her other books include Russia’s Greatest Enemy: Harold Williams and the Russian Revolutions.

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